Reading the EdWeek article – Students Must Learn More Words, Say Studies – my mind flashed back to a scene from a few weekends ago when I took a walk with my three grandchildren on the Baltimore Annapolis trail. My six-year-old granddaughter, noting that her brother was consistently lagging behind us, said something to the effect that I guess he doesn’t want to associate with us. Now, the word “associate” surprised me, and I complimented her on her vocabulary and even remarked to her parents when we got home about her use of “associate.” I hope in a small way she learned that we are a family that values words and that knowing a lot of words is a good thing.
The EdWeek piece focuses on the vocabulary deficit which children of poverty have as they enter kindergarten. It goes on to describe how schools are doing a poor job of closing the vocabulary gap for a variety of reasons–but primarily because vocabulary instruction is too willy-nilly. Though the researchers cited in the article don’t say it, it seems they believe at school age the locus of vocabulary acquisition shifts from the wider environment to the school. What is never said is that children like my granddaughter will continue to acquire new words at home and in the community as well as in school. Not only will her environment away from school continue to be more verbally rich, but she will continue to be complimented for her vocabulary development. Having taught in schools with high rates of poverty, I have seen a diametrically opposite dynamic occur at times. Think of two snowballs at the top of a snow covered hill—one smaller and one larger. How much more will the larger ball grow as it rolls down the hill for twelve years? Now, imagine the same two balls on two different hills, the larger ball on a hill with much deeper snow on its slope.
Closing the vocabulary gap then does not end with great instruction in the primary grades, but schools must continue to address vocabulary development across the grades through high school. I don’t have space to discuss the nuances of how vocabulary is acquired, but I will say that in school it is best done through an intentional program that has vocabulary development as one of the instructional goals. The Common Core State Standards demands this with its focus on academic vocabulary as one of its key instructional shifts. Parenthetically, this is one area where content area teachers who have been uncomfortable with the thought of becoming reading teachers can really support the CCSS initiative. Content area teachers can make vocabulary acquisition—not just content specific words, but general academic vocabulary—a focused part of their instructional practice.
The other connection I made while reading the EdWeek piece was to the move away from textbooks to digital content that I discussed previously. Moving to a smorgasbord of digital content will likely expose students to a wide range of vocabulary words, but it will also likely expose them to words in a willy-nilly way. One message in Students Must Learn More Words, Say Studies is that students must be exposed to important words they can leverage across subjects (academic vocabulary) and they must be exposed to words repeatedly and in a context that allows them to add words to existing schema or frameworks of background knowledge. This suggests choosing multiple pieces of digital content that are focused on the same topic – maybe staying at one area of the digital smorgasbord rather than sampling too widely. The burden to craft a strong program of vocabulary acquisition and the burden to craft a program that emphasizes text complexity will be heavy but critical in a digital and Common Core State Standards world.
In the recent State of the Union Address, President Obama highlighted the need for strong pre-schools to narrow the readiness gap—a big piece of which is the vocabulary gap. My thought on this is the vocabulary gap is one that will need constant attention. Even if all kids entered kindergarten with the same vocabulary through great pre-school programs, the conditions that created the initial gap still persist. My granddaughter will still live in an environment rich in words while others, outside of school will not.